A Gridlocked Senate Agrees to Some Limits on Filibusters

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WASHINGTON -- Senate Democratic and Republican leaders agreed to new limits on the filibuster on Thursday, an effort to speed action in the often-clogged chamber by reducing how often senators could use a common tactic to slow the legislative process.

According to lawmakers and aides who have reviewed the plan, which still needs to pass the full Senate, several procedural hurdles would be removed to allow bills to come to the floor for a vote in a more timely fashion.

First, the majority party -- Democrats currently -- would no longer have to marshal 60 votes in order for debate on a bill to proceed in certain circumstances. But, in turn, Democrats would have to agree to allow Republicans two amendments to the bill.

The changes, while falling far short of what some reformers were pushing for, are intended to help ease tensions between the parties, whose disagreements in recent years have caused the Senate often to operate in a state of stagnation.

Republicans would frequently filibuster bills by blocking a procedural step known as a motion to proceed, thereby killing bills before they could ever be debated.

And Democrats would deny Republicans the opportunity to offer amendments, reducing their ability to shape legislation as it made its way through the Senate.

The changes will surely disappoint reformers who were pushing for more sweeping revisions to rein in the filibuster, once a rarely used legislative tool. The new rules will not include, for instance, a requirement that senators be present on the Senate floor when they want to block a bill from coming to a vote, continuing the practice of allowing them to filibuster in absentia. And opponents would still have the opportunity to filibuster a final vote on any legislation, thwarting its passage without 60 votes.

Though Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, has threatened to use his majority to push through changes if Republicans do not compromise, veteran lawmakers in both parties historically have been reluctant to force drastic changes in Senate rules, fearing they could boomerang if they return to the minority.

As the final touches were being put on the rule changes, some senators expressed relief that they finally appeared headed toward a resolution on one of the main issues that helped make the last Congress, the 112th, unproductive and inefficient.

"I think this would be a real boost towards ending the gridlock which has bedeviled us," said Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat.

"The unique thing about the Senate is we're supposed to debate -- frequently and at length. And we're supposed to be deliberative," he added. "It's been allowed, I believe, to decline in that regard."

Mr. Levin echoed a sentiment that has been increasingly common among members of both parties: because of arcane parliamentary rules exploited by both parties, senators are not able to do the work they were elected to carry out.

Democrats have long complained that Republican obstruction has kept even the most routine measures from being dealt with in a timely manner. In the 112th Congress, a motion for cloture -- a procedure that begins a vote to end a filibuster -- was filed 115 times. In the 111th Congress, it happened 137 times, more than double the number from when Democrats were in the minority during the early 2000s.

In turn, Republicans say they have been forced to block bills because of Mr. Reid's refusal to allow amendments on bills once they reach the floor, and his insistence that bills often bypass the committee process, tactics that prevent them from having much of a meaningful role in shaping legislation.

"It's important for us as Republicans to be able to offer amendments," said Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who worked on a bipartisan filibuster compromise along with Mr. Levin and Senators Charles E. Schumer of New York, Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, all Democrats, and the Republicans Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and John McCain of Arizona.

Mr. Barrasso added: "I hope we're more functional. I want the body to function."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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